Silicon Valley Democrats decry ballot changes
A Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters worker walks past a county voter during the 2021 gubernatorial recall election in this file photo.

The local Democratic Party is pushing back against the removal of party affiliation language from candidate statements just weeks before ballots are mailed.

The tussle is over San Jose Councilmember Sylvia Arenas, who is running for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors District 1 seat. In her candidate statement, Arenas lists endorsements that include the Santa Clara County Democratic Party. That endorsement was removed from ballot language, according to her campaign. San Jose City Council District 3 candidate Omar Torres told San José Spotlight he had his statement adjusted last minute as well.

Bill James, chair of the local Democratic Party, said the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters’ decision to remove party endorsements right before ballots are printed and without a chance to review the final statement is unfair to candidates.

“I’m also suspicious of the timing to be honest because it’s happening on the eve of the publication, leaving no time to respond,” James told San José Spotlight. “As I understand it, (Arenas) wasn’t offered a chance to amend her statement and make full use of the word count.”

Last week, the registrar of voters decided to strike any references to local party affiliations from candidate statements. The decision is based on an April court ruling in Orange County that requires a candidate endorsed by a political party to remove that reference, on the grounds it violates California election law for all candidates running in nonpartisan races.

Santa Clara County’s registrar decided it would not allow political party endorsements to be included in any candidate statements that pertain to all nonpartisan offices up for election this November, spokesperson Michael Borja said.

“No specific party is being singled out,” Borja told San José Spotlight. “All nonpartisan candidates are being treated equally by not allowing a political party endorsement.”

Patrick McGarrity, spokesperson for Arenas’ campaign, said removing the endorsement was a violation of her First Amendment rights.

“No one ever challenged that Sylvia Arenas has been endorsed by the Santa Clara County Democratic Party, or any other language in Sylvia’s statement, in either the general or primary elections,” McGarrity told San José Spotlight. “Yet well after the official review period ended, the registrar’s office took this extreme and authoritarian action of compromising Sylvia’s right to free speech.”

Arenas’ opponent, former San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis, said the registrar of voters did the right thing and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

“The ROV told me the same thing at the beginning. They said I could not have, for example, an endorsement by Democrat Sam Liccardo on my statement,” Khamis told San José Spotlight. “It is absolutely in the document that we all signed that we were going to live by those rules. I’m shocked that they allowed her to have it go forward to begin with.”

But James said the Orange County ruling is “flawed” and not legally binding. He said the decision ignores the constitutional rights of free speech and association of the candidate and the Democratic Party. The party is considering legal action if the decision is not reversed.

He wrote to Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey saying removing the language exceeded her authority.

“Your decision further impairs the residents of Santa Clara County by depriving them of information they may wish to consider in making that decision,” James wrote.

Shane Patrick Connolly, chairman of the Santa Clara County Republic Party, told San José Spotlight the Orange County ruling and local registrar’s actions seem consistent with maintaining nonpartisan races.

“It’s the responsibility of the political parties to communicate their endorsements to their own members,” he said.

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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